Business

In MetLife’s new tower in Cary, the insurance giant hopes to find its next big idea

Metlife’s three offices in Cary, North Carolina, serve as its global technology campus.
Metlife’s three offices in Cary, North Carolina, serve as its global technology campus. hlynch@newsobserver.com

Inside MetLife’s newest building in Cary — its third tower overlooking Lake Crabtree — the insurance giant is hoping to find the future of the insurance industry, or at least a competitive advantage.

That’s where, just off the lobby, teams of startups are hard at work developing technology that could make providing insurance more efficient and profitable and keep potential customers healthier.

While insurance is often viewed as a boring, rote job where people show up in suits and ties, MetLife’s new offices off Weston Parkway have all the trappings of a tech startup or co-working office.

Inside its new innovation space, young workers in jeans and short-sleeve button downs make espressos in a shared kitchen in between charting out ideas on an interior wall that has been co-opted as a whiteboard.

The office is open concept, with not a cubicle in sight — just shared tables and desks and a few private rooms to be used by nine young companies that are all temporarily calling Cary home.

“All industries are under constant pressure to innovate and adapt, and insurance is no exception,” said John Bungert, an assistant vice president of innovation at MetLife, explaining why the company is looking to nurture startups.

Bungert is one of 13 employees on MetLife’s innovation team, seven of whom are based out of MetLife’s expanding presence in the Triangle. The Cary offices, home to more than a thousand employees, has been designated the company’s Global Technology Campus. The third tower at the campus just opened earlier this summer.

metlife
Metlife plans to employ 1,500 people at its Global Technology Campus in Car. Harry Lynch hlynch@newsobserver.com

Finding new ways to keep the insurance company relevant and dominant in an era of disruption is vital to the company’s success going forward, Bungert said.

Enter the tech accelerator that MetLife created last year with Techstars, an organization that helps grow young startups through mentorship and by connecting them to resources, like venture capital.

The idea is to find companies working in insurance technology or adjacent areas, so that MetLife can test or discover new ideas that will be helpful to either its customers, its own employees or its bottom line.

“As an industry leader,” Bungert said, “we need to avoid the temptation of resting on our past successes and instead focus on our next growth opportunity.”

The company has made innovation a priority since 2011, when just off the heels of the Great Recession, it began looking for new ways to keep the company growing. Bungert noted that, just in the first half of 2019, there have already been 70 venture deals globally focused on insurance-tech companies worth nearly $3 billion, meaning there is a lot of potential competition out there for MetLife.

With its accelerator, MetLife brings cohorts of startups to Cary, where they work with MetLife and Techstars leaders in an intensive 13-week program. The company looks for startups that have ideas or technologies that potentially could be fast-tracked to have an impact on the insurance industry, nudging them in directions that they think could be fruitful.

“When we bring in these startups, our goal is to spot the possibilities in every disruption,” MetLife Chief Digital Officer Greg Baxter said earlier this year. “If a solution can improve our customer experience and tackle real business challenges or opportunities, we then look to supersize it. The result is a positive collision of industrial scale and innovation speed. And for a company like MetLife, scale matters, as it’s a key differentiator for us.”

Its current cohort of nine startups includes companies working on a range of ideas, like:

Zogo Finance, a Durham-based startup created by Duke University students making an app to teach kids personal finance. Bungert described it as similar to Duolingo, an app with in-game incentives that teaches people foreign languages.

Slighter, a smart cigarette lighter created by a Lebanese entrepreneur that tracks smoking habits and trains users to reduce gradually until they quit.

Lazarus, a Cambridge, Massachussetts, company, that uses historical patient health data and machine learning to help predict the early onset of cancer.

The program has already been somewhat successful for MetLife.

Of the 10 companies that participated in last year’s program, eight will have launched or completed a project with MetLife by the end of 2019, Bungert said. One company, Singapore-based Aligned Business, which went through the first accelerator last year, is designing a digital insurance pilot program for South American and Asia.

While the startups only work out of MetLife’s Cary office for 13 weeks, Bungert said they all permanently become part of the MetLife and Techstars network. (MetLife and Techstars get an undisclosed amount of equity in companies that accept a position in the accelerator, a standard part of the Techstars model.)

Bungert added that the teams are welcome to return and can continue working with the Metlife Innovation Office and other Metlife teams for new opportunities and partnerships.

The accelerator could also serve as a chance for the Triangle to lure new startups, with a connection to one of the largest insurers in the world, to stay here. While they are only tied to the Cary office temporarily, that is still a 13-week period for a company to basically test drive how they might fit in the Triangle’s startup scene.

The genesis of the innovation hub dates to 2013, when New York-based MetLife began to make huge investments into North Carolina, opening several offices across the Tar Heel state.

That investment was sparked by state financial incentives.

In 2013, MetLife received state incentives worth more than $87.2 million in exchange for creating more than 2,600 high-paying jobs, evenly split between Cary and Charlotte, The News & Observer previously reported.

Additional state and local incentives brought the total package to about $100 million.

The company plans to eventually reach a hiring goal of 1,500 workers in the Triangle.

This story was produced with financial support from a coalition of partners led by Innovate Raleigh as part of an independent journalism fellowship program. The N&O maintains full editorial control of the work. Learn more; go to bit.ly/newsinnovate

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Zachery Eanes is the Innovate Raleigh reporter for The News & Observer and The Herald-Sun. He covers technology, startups and main street businesses, biotechnology, and education issues related to those areas.
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